Building an ethical culture: the role of human resource practitioners

Professor Pauline Stanton
, Head of School of Management at RMIT, discusses the role human resources practitioners play in developing, and challenges in maintaining, an ethical organisational culture.

An ethical culture is a key feature of good governance in public sector agencies. Creating such a culture includes managing the behaviours of people in the workplace, as it is what people do or don’t do that leads to corruption and unethical behaviours. There is clearly an important role for human resource practitioners in providing equitable and transparent policies, practices and processes throughout the organisation and in signalling what are acceptable or unacceptable behaviours and how to manage them. However, this is not a problem for the HR department to solve alone. As Graycar and Kelly (2014) point out, leadership is key in creating an ethical culture and the ‘tone from the top’ is essential.

I would argue that while leadership comes from the top it needs to be enacted at all levels of an organisation and line managers and supervisors all have a role to play in promoting good behaviours. However, this is easier said than done. In this article I highlight some of key challenges that human resource practitioners and managers face in creating and sustaining an ethical culture.

We often become most aware of corruption and unethical behaviour when things go wrong – for example, there is some financial impropriety and someone ends up in jail, or some unprofessional (or even unlawful) behaviour that has been swept under the carpet on one person’s watch emerges much later on another’s – and everyone runs for cover. For public sector agencies these situations usually end up as front page news and a severely embarrassed Minister – even if the event in question happened well before their time. Blaming someone else is never a good look in politics, even though it happens all the time.

The impact of these events are that most agencies and organisations will go into crisis mode and adopt a risk management approach of more monitoring and control, more policies and procedures and more checking and double checking. The outcome is often the creation of a risk-adverse culture of compliance and blame. Here we come to the first challenge – the undermining of trust within the organisation as a response to such events.

A culture of compliance is an important concern for the HR department. Clearly HR practitioners have an important role in designing and implementing best practice policy and process that can support good governance and ethical practices.

Transparent and fair recruitment, selection and promotion processes, codes of conduct, performance appraisal processes that include expected behaviours and not just outcomes and outputs are all essential for good HR practice. Managers at all levels need to be trained in the use of such processes and practices. These are all good traditional HR theories and this is how we train the next the next generation of HR practitioners to think and to act.

However, here we come to the next challenge – too much focus on policies, procedures, systems and processes is easily translated as compliance and moreover, can lead to policy overload. This is made worse if the policies contradict each other and don’t pull in the same direction. Furthermore, if managers do not see these policies as relevant, or they don’t understand them or they have just too many things to think about – they often ignore them, they do work arounds, they cut corners – in this context the very unethical behaviours that the policies are supposed to protect against often go unnoticed, or worse, are seen as just too hard to deal with.

So what can we do – how do we manage risk but trust our staff? How do we have enough policies, but the right ones that are understood and valued? This is the next challenge and we need to go back to the ‘tone from the top’. All the leadership literature tells us that good leaders walk their talk and practice what they preach. Moreover, they send strong messages out across the organisation about the values of the organisation and the behaviours that are rewarded and the behaviours that are not acceptable. Good leaders make sure that decision making is consistent, transparent and fair and is based on good data that is shared across the organisation. Good leaders operate from a position of trust and transparency.

Very importantly, these messages need to be more than rhetoric. Good leaders also involve their employees – they make sure that these messages are translated to all decision makers and all staff within the organisation and that managers and staff have a voice in commenting, giving feedback, and being heard. Employees need to actually see a cause and effect between behaviours and practices that are said to be valued and those that are rewarded. Too often people see the opposite happening and the wrong people being rewarded. There is much evidence on the importance of consistency and consensus in organisational practice and there is a huge literature on the value of involving staff in decision making.

And the final challenge: line managers and supervisors need to be supported in challenging and managing poor behaviours. These behaviours can range from dealing with staff who send out unprofessional emails to colleagues, to staff who bully others, to staff who misuse resources, to staff who moonlight in other organisations, to staff who give favours to friends and relatives and so on. The reality is that most managers will never face major theft or full-on corruption, but they will face a range of behaviours from their staff that create a toxic culture in which unethical, unprofessional and even corrupt behaviours can flourish.

Identifying such behaviours and then doing something about it is often one of the most difficult challenges a manager can face. In my experience, they take time and effort and sometimes it is easier to hope that the problem or the person will go away. It rarely does, but if a manager is to tackle challenging behaviours from difficult staff they need to feel that they will be supported from the top. They need to know that they will not be blamed if the situation starts to unravel, if trade unions become involved or things get ugly. Moreover, they need good, timely, strategic and tactical advice from HR practitioners. In my experience, many HR practitioners are often not well-equipped to give such advice – yet this is precisely the kind of support that managers need in addressing unethical or unprofessional behaviours.

To conclude, I would argue that creating ethical organisations that operate on trust and integrity need strong leadership that sends the right messages across the organisation that all employees can understand and relate to. While good policy frameworks are essential, it is the people management side of the equation that leads to success or failure. People management is the responsibility of all leaders and managers and not just HR practitioners. 

Professor Pauline Stanton
Head of School of Management